THIS IS FOR MẸ: Saying Goodbye to Fear with Trinh Mai

In this except of this is for mẹ, Jess Boyd considers memory, inheritance, fear, and resilience with Trinh Mai in discussing her 2019 project, That We Should Be Heirs. Together, they discuss the different ways that fear is transmitted, transmuted, and transformed. 

“Installations of That We Should Be Heirs invite guests to write about their fears, bind their writings into scrolls, and bury their fears into the pockets that serve as tombs for our burdens, vaults for our secrets, or sepulchers in which to lay our pains to rest. Along with a stone, the scrolls are enclosed in the wall that, too, is dappled with scars much like we are.”

Inspired by Ocean’s Vuong’s letter to his mother in the New York Times, this is for mẹ lives online as a borderless mailbox for Asian identified people to share stories rooted in mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues and family.

Saying Goodbye to Fear with Trinh Mai

That We Should Be Heirs, Fear Not., Ba ơi (Dear Father), and Family Tree at the University of Washington as part of the “Memory and Place” exhibition.

What was “That We Should Be Heirs” born out of? What was the experience of birthing it like?

That We Should Be Heirs was born from the urgent need to help bring comfort to those who have been afflicted by the crisis of deportation, separation, and fear, and to those who stand with them in this fight.

We’ve sat with Vietnamese families as they’ve faced similar wars which their parents had once overcome. Somehow, they are having to face these wars again as history repeats itself. I’ve been inspired by their endurance, and by the steadfastness of those who lead the fight for them. I’ve felt this fear in them and for them. For all of us. I’ve seen how the fear can fog our eyes and I’ve heard how it chokes us to silence our voices.

There are forces that aim to agitate, to create fear, and to divide, and we can easily fall victim. I wanted to make something wherein we could acknowledge our fears so that we could confront them together. And perhaps, let go of the ones that hinder us. And more so, stir up the courage that lies beneath the rubble once these fears crumble.

There is a lot of conversation around inherited trauma. They are so very real. We’ve lived with them and through them. But I wanted to also cradle our inherited strength in our other hands, holding them side by side as a reminder that we are given this very strength that will walk us through the trauma. That We Should Be Heirs suggests that there is purpose to the things that we have inherited.

This project gave birth to a kind of peace that I think might even surpass courage somehow. I made the work because I needed it in my (our) life, and the community seems to have needed it too. Sometimes, we just need to purge. I would guess that we’ve addressed our fears on possibly over 2000 scrolls, written in over fourteen different languages, during its run at two sites—the University of Washington and San Diego Art Institute. What I love about That We Should Be Heirs is that there are so many authors responsible for bringing it to life. It’s truly our work.

Professor Linh Thủy Nguyễn and Michelle Dinh help collect stones for That We Should Be Heirs at Alki Beach in West Seattle.

You made fear a tangible and physical entity that could be laid to rest in tiny scrolls.  What gave you this idea?

There is a Vietnamese belief to bury the dead so that their souls can find rest. That tradition inspired the whole concept of laying our fears to rest into little tombs. What if we could bury our fears so that our souls can rest—even for just a moment—so that we can carry forth with sound mind?

The idea for the scrolls came from my father-in-law, but I wouldn’t realize it until fifteen years later.

Currently at Gould Gallery, a larger-than-life portrait of my father-in-law, Thạch Thạch Văn Phươl, floats front and center. He looks at us from a photo that was taken while he was imprisoned in a reeducation camp for several years. I’ve had this photo since 2001, but had failed at multiple attempts to make something of it. I tried painting it on multiple scales, on various surfaces, painting and printing it in different mediums, but nothing felt right. Then, in 2016, something that should have been so obvious, suddenly came to me. I realized that the power was in the photo—this object that documents this very moment. This object that marks the loss of our country. I realized that I was trying too hard to make art out of it when I just needed to let it speak for itself.

My father-in-law was deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition. While in the reeducation camp, my mother-in-law would visit him. One day, she went to visit his Buddhist master on his behalf and returned with a scroll small enough to hide in the palm of his hand. This scroll was wrapped with a single white thread that was intricately knotted along the length of it, like vertebrae. His master instructed him to put it in his mouth when he spoke with camp officials, as it would give him favor among them. He did this day after day, and then one day, he was released. I thought about the fear that he must have felt, and how during critical moments of survival, there is such little time to be wasted on fear. He was a courageous man who willed his survival, and during his life, had witnessed life-saving miracles that surpass all understanding.

His story has haunted me since 2001. Eighteen years later, it presents itself in That We Should Be Heirs. Sometimes, the creative process calls for us to be (very) patient. So, patient, in fact, that the concept buries itself somewhere, awaiting the right time to birth, as you had beautifully mentioned. From my experience, I have found that it’s always worth the wait. Some works of art need to simmer for a long time in order to reveal to us what it is.

Writings on fear contributed by University of Washington faculty, staff, and students, Seattle community members, and women from Washington State Correctional Facility for Women. The scrolls will continue to follow the project as it travels. Photo credit: Linh Thủy Nguyễn

Did creating this project create or resurrect any personal fears?

I once heard someone say, “Art has the ability to begin a conversation about the unspeakable.”  

Developing this project encouraged me to face my personal fears, as well as the fear of how people would respond to the work. I asked myself, “What right do I have to ask people to relive their fears, and then to share them, and then to trust that they will remain unread?” (The installation contains letters that Bà Ngoại, my grandmother, agreed to give me so long as I promised her that I would not read them.) I have to remind myself that if I’m making something out of love, this love will read through the work. And, thank goodness, that love has never failed me.

Your art feels so intimate. So personal, yet also communal. So many hands pass over your work, and so many souls pass through it. What is the physical experience of creating living art for others like? How does it feel in and on your body to create and set free these works of love?

Thank you for saying this. I do hope for it to feel this way. My work begins in an intimate space of prayer, meditation, and reflection. When it leaves the studio, it invites everyone into the space. The physicality that goes into preparing the work has brought me into a significantly deeper understanding with the work. It forces me to live through the thing itself so that I can know it intimately before inviting others to do the same.

Hand-written scrolls contributed to That We Should Be Heirs. Photo credit: Hien Thach

For example, for That We Should Be Heirs, I had to reroll hundreds of scrolls that have been tied too loosely. It has been tiresome work. I’ve wondered several times how much longer I can keep at this tedious task. And then I remind myself, “This was the whole point of this piece—to help others lighten the load that they’ve been carrying.” So I just keep working.

The physical exchange that takes place in That We Should Be Heirs echoes the spiritual and emotional exchange that occurs when we are willing to burden ourselves with the plight of another. These notes are written in pencil, with the words rolled on the outside of the scroll. We lift these graphite particles with our fingers as we handle one another’s fears, and also leave our oils upon them at the same time. Each person who participates in this project will have left their physical imprint upon the artwork.

Another example is Fear Not., the sister piece to That We Should Be Heirs, an interactive drawing wherein guests are invited to physically erase fear. In its creation, I colored in the 3-foot text with a graphite pencil and developed severe cramping in my arms and burning blisters on my thumb. Developing these pieces caused me physical tension and discomfort—much like fear does.

I was so surprised by the amount of people who have been willingness to participate in this project. I’m astounded by how many of us are willing to acknowledge our fears—something that is so very difficult to do. The response to the project is a testament to how courageous people truly are.

As the project has taken on a life of its own, living, growing, and changing under people’s touch, is there anything that has surprised you?

I’m astonished by how much courage people have to be willing to share their fears. Even though their writings will remain unread, there is still a trust that needs to be present to be willing to do so. It takes great courage to trust. People are brave. We want to share, but on our own time and in the right space.

I’m always surprised by the things that people say—these comments that add layers of meaning to the work. This is one of the things that I love most about interactive work—so much is revealed through the participation. While engaging with Fear Not., one gentleman commented on the dense graphite, “It’s really difficult to erase this fear.” Another young refugee woman from Syria began erasing and said, “It’s a lot easier to erase fear where someone else has already begun erasing it.” Yes and yes!

During a workshop with the women from Washington State Correctional Facility for Women, the women began sharing their writings for That We Should Be Heirs aloud. As each woman read what she had written, she was met with encouragement. It was truly inspiring to witness how open they were in sharing such private thoughts, and how much support they had for one another. As one woman read, “I’m afraid that I won’t be reconnected with my family”, across the room, another woman flung both hands in the air and exclaimed, “Girl, we’re your family. Whatchoo need?!” We all laughed with joy, witnessing the love that they have for one other.   

I’m shocked at how people have embraced this project. It feels good when the artwork affects more people than just me in my studio.

Trinh Mai is an interdisciplinary, California-based artist who received her BFA at San Jose State University and furthered her studies at UCLA. She exhibits nationally with works taking residency in public and private collections internationally. In addition to exhibiting her work with leading academic and arts institutions such as the University of Washington, Harvard University, Stanford University, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Naples Museum of Art, her passion for intermixing arts and collaboration has inspired her community involvement. She has served as Master Teaching Artist for the Bowers Museum, Course Developer for the Pacific Symphony, and Curator at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, and has served in various residencies including UC Irvine’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network, for which she created visual arts language to help tell the stories of Vietnamese America. She has also held residencies with Community Engagement in partnership with California State University Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, during which she developed self-exploratory visual arts workshops for underrepresented communities in Orange County.

Mai has traveled nationwide to speak about her work and processes, and has had her artwork, poetry, and reflections about her work published in numerous publications, including the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education & Advancement (Purdue University), Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (University of Chicago Press), Frontiers Journal of Women Studies (Ohio State University), and Ruminate Magazine. Recognizing the role of art to educate and heal, Mai has exhibited in support of numerous humanitarian groups including the Warriors Community Foundation which supports education in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Friends of Hue Foundation Children’s Shelter in Vietnam, and the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia. Seeking hope within humanity’s struggle in war and hardship, she has partnered with Oceanside Museum of Art, MiraCosta College and Bowers Museum in developing socially engaging projects with survivors of war. Her inspirations and journey as an artist have been documented by The Artist Odyssey in the film, “Honoring Life: The Work of Trinh Mai” which won the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film at the 2016 Viet Film Festival.


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